Theft case shakes local religious institutionsWritten by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
When the former business manager of a West Toledo Catholic church pleaded guilty in federal court Sept. 5 to stealing $525,000 in parish funds, the repercussions were felt at religious institutions throughout the region where multiple thousands of dollars are handled every week.
Patricia Ann Stanz, 61, was described by authorities as “a trusted employee” of Gesu Roman Catholic Church, working at the Parkside Boulevard parish, next to St. Francis de Sales High School, from August 2007 to August 2011.
The thefts reportedly began in June 2008 and continued until Stanz’s termination more than three years later. The case was investigated by the FBI and is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Karol, according to U.S. District Court records.
Stanz told authorities she used most of the stolen funds for gambling.
“This person abused the trust of her employer and the entire congregation,” said Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
As the church’s business manager, Stanz used a rubber stamp with the signature of the parish’s former pastor, the Rev. James Cryan, then signed her name on nearly 100 checks to draw $295,000 from the parish’s checking account with Fifth Third Bank, according to federal officials.
She also withdrew about $200,000 in cash advances using a Gesu credit card, officials said.
“Obviously the parish suffered an extreme monetary loss,” said Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins, a former police officer and 35-year member of Gesu Parish. Collins said he was asked by Cryan to help the parish review its policies and practices last December, after the theft had been discovered.
“The greater loss, in my opinion, was to Father James Cryan, who is now retired, and his loss of having placed trust, and then finding that trust had been misplaced,” Collins said. “If there are any lessons to be learned, it is by the laymen who must learn to be responsible for the financial structure of the parish.”
Policies weren’t followed
Indeed, the Toledo Catholic Diocese has extensive guidelines for parishes on handling money responsibly and with oversight, but by all accounts those guidelines went unheeded while Stanz was at Gesu.
“There’s no doubt the policies weren’t followed,” Collins said.
Virtually all of the larger religious organizations have financial guidelines for their members to follow.
The Rev. Larry Clark, pastor of Sylvania First United Methodist Church, said his church has a finance committee of 15 that meets monthly and reviews all the church’s financial records.
Each week, a different set of four people counts the money collected during services, Clark said.
In addition, the church’s financial secretary records who donated what amounts, and a separate person serving as church treasurer submits monthly reports to the finance committee.
“Hopefully, by having enough people involved in the checks and balances, as well as conducting an internal audit each year, we can make sure that it couldn’t happen,” Clark said.
“I never worry about our church at all. We’ve got good checks and balances in place. But if you have somebody smart enough and desperate enough, they probably can get away with it — at least for a while,” he added.
The Rev. Tim Philabaum, pastor of Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg, said a financial audit is performed annually at Zoar, which ensures that the church’s financial books are in order.
“And we have different people handling the income and the outgo of funds,” he said. “The person who writes the checks cannot touch the money that comes in from the offerings.”
The theft at Gesu was the largest local church theft in memory, but certainly not the only one. In March 2010, Toledo police reported that an employee of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Cathedral on Woodley Road had allegedly embezzled $145,000, and last June police reported a suspected embezzlement at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, with $12,000 missing.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), a Christian accreditation agency based in Winchester, Va., sets financial guidelines for its members to ensure that funds are handled properly.
There are 1,700 churches and ministries nationwide that have received ECFA accreditation, with each one agreeing to follow specific mandates on financial oversight.
“Each organization shall prepare complete and accurate financial statements,” ECFA’s policy states. “The board or a committee consisting of a majority of independent members shall approve the engagement of an independent certified public accountant, review the annual financial statements and maintain appropriate communication with the independent certified public accountant. The board shall be apprised of any material weaknesses in internal control or other significant risks,” ECFA’s guidelines state.
Transparency with finances is a biblical principle, ECFA states on its website, and “serves to deter improper diversion of funds and other misdeeds.”
Stanz, meanwhile, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison when she is sentenced, now scheduled for Jan. 14, by Judge James Carr in U.S. District Court.
Collins said it is inappropriate to comment further on the case until the sentence is imposed. But he rejected some people’s suggestion that Cryan drop all charges and forgive Stanz, contending that Jesus preached forgiveness.
“I say that in my world there are two sets of rules: God’s rules and man’s rules,” Collins said. “I can’t control God’s rules but I have a responsibility with man’s rules. What [Stanz] did was an uncivilized act. If there are no consequences to breaking the law, what’s the barrier to create civil behavior? She broke man’s rules, so I say, ‘Throw her in jail.’”
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of ToledoFAVS.com, a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.